Restrictive diets work for some people, but for others, cutting out entire food groups leads to binge eating and guilt (haven’t we all experienced doughnut binge-induced shame during a low-carb diet?). That's why small tweaks to your eating habits can have more impact in the long run than a total diet overhaul.
But navigating the healthy diet waters can be tricky, and it's tough to know where to start. These are the best simple swaps to help you slash the amount of fat, carbs, calories, and sugar you consume with little-to-no extra effort. Start incorporating them now, and say hello to a healthier body.
Keep reading to see the healthy swaps you can make now. You won't notice anything is missing!
Olive oil is rich in monosaturated fats (those are the good ones that help reduce "bad" cholesterol). But the biggest reason to choose olive oil over vegetable oils: The latter’s one of the most processed foods we encounter. Unlike olive oil, which can be extracted naturally, vegetable oils have to go through a chemical process (that involves petroleum—ew!) in order to become what we see in the containers on grocery store shelves.
Olive oil is also packed with polyphenols, which can help neutralize free radicals before they reach "bad" cholesterol and oxidize it, causing it to become even more dangerous.
Research has also indicated that after eating olive oil, people felt more full than after eating other kinds of oils. Just be sure to look for olives oils labeled cold-pressed, extra-virgin, or virgin, as these will still have the health benefits intact. Other labels (such as "pure") can mean that some nutrients were stripped out during a chemical refinement process.
Flavored non-fat yogurt is filled with sugar to cover up the fact that it's, well, non-fat. Just one container can have up to 32 grams, which is more than a Snickers bar. Swap it out for Greek yogurt (make sure you get the plain kind), and you'll get double the protein, and half of the carbs and sodium. As for sugar? You'll cut your intake down by 26 grams.
Unlike granulated sugar, maple syrup is a natural sweetener that contains trace amounts of vitamins and minerals like manganese and zinc. It has a glycemic index of 54 (about 11 points lower than granulated sugar), which means it raises blood sugar more slowly. One study even found that there are 24 different antioxidants in maple syrup. Keep in mind, however, that all forms of sugar should be consumed in moderation.
Look for 100 percent pure maple syrup, not maple-flavored syrup (like Mrs. Butterworth); flavored syrup contains tons of refined sugar.
Sodium is essential for life, but the average American gets way too much of it. The CDC says that the average sodium intake in America is 3,463 grams per day—but we only really need about 550 milligrams per day for our bodies to function, and the daily recommended amount is at 2,300 milligrams.
Too much sodium has been linked to elevated blood pressure, which in turn is linked to heart disease and stroke. On a less serious note, it can also make you bloated and uncomfortable.
You can start slashing your sodium intake by swapping out salt for herbs and spices (think basil, oregano, or cayenne pepper); you'll still get tons of flavor—without the bloating. Plus, fresh herbs have been found to contain antioxidants.
While you're at it, skip the canned goods, as those are a major culprit behind soaring salt intake.
Believe it or not, almond milk actually has more calcium than a glass of milk, and it contains no saturated fat. A cup of unsweetened almond milk also contains a mere 30 calories, compared to the 103 calories in a glass of one percent milk. The slightly sweet, nutty mixture can be used in baking, in smoothies, over cereal—basically anything regular milk can be used for.
Just one serving of almond milk contains about 50 percent of recommended vitamin E intake; this vitamin is a powerful antioxidant and helps keep your immune system strong.
Even though granola has a reputation for being healthy, the truth is that many varieties are high in sugar and carbs. A typical one-cup serving of granola contains 28 grams of sugar, 450 calories, and 80 grams of carbohydrates; by switching to oatmeal, you can cut 27 grams of sugar, nearly 300 calories, and 53 carbs. Even if you add fruit or a touch of maple syrup (see above) to your oatmeal, you're still better off.
Who doesn’t love a big ol' plate of spaghetti and meatballs? Unfortunately, pasta isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when we think of eating healthy. Next time you whip up this comfort food, try spaghetti squash in place of pasta.
Whether you want to cut calories or carbs, subbing spaghetti squash for pasta is a smart choice. The shape is eerily similar to spaghetti noodles (hence the name), but the calories are vastly different: A one-cup serving of pasta contains over five times the calories of the squash (221 as compared to 42). And carb-wise, spaghetti squash only contains 10 grams, while pasta has 43 grams.
Adding to the (long) list of reasons why we love the squash: It's a good source of dietary fiber (which keeps us fuller longer) and it contains plenty of vitamin B6 and potassium.
Sweet potatoes pack in 400 percent of the daily requirement of vitamin A, and contain more vitamin C and fiber than white potatoes. Vitamin A is essential for healthy eyes, while vitamin C is an effective immune system booster. And per serving, sweet potatoes contain about 40 fewer calories. Look for sweet potatoes that are rich in color, like orange or even purple, as these are the most nutrient dense.
Cup for cup, there isn't much of a caloric difference between quinoa and rice. But quinoa has nearly double the protein, six times the calcium, and ten times the fiber, not to mention 14 fewer carbs—making those calories more nutritionally dense and filling.
White rice also has a high glycemic index, which can spike blood sugar and inhibit weight loss efforts.
Which of these healthy swaps are you going to implement? Did we leave anything out? Sound off in the comments!